Serial Experiments Lain

lain
I don’t get it. Maybe this is just a relic from a time before we talked about the Singularity and before the internet.

The anime clearly strives for something. It has a lot of philosophical quotes. Characters say things like “what isn’t remembered never happened”. There is typography on the screen, references to Roswell and Jung and the theme of ‘identity’ (Why do I always roll eyes when I see this?).

Now, it’s not just a collection of anime-style drawings stuck together in a pretentious and unbearable form. Lain doesn’t just copy the form of ‘intelligent’ storytelling. There is always a drive behind it. It feels more like the writers have a lot to ask and to say. They’re so excited by it that they will use all these techniques with hope of transmitting it to the viewer.

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Too bad it never really gels. It asks questions about identity, but how? How is having different versions of Lain automatically question the theme of ‘identity’? Couldn’t they think of a less predictable and perhaps more meaningful way to do it?

It’s almost as if the themes are expressed and name-dropped, but not actually demonstrated. Having people mention God and omniscience doesn’t mean you explore the theme of theology. You need to show how it affects characters’ lives and perception of reality. You need to show what effects such a God would have if it existed.

It’s not enough to just have characters with multiple identities. You need this to blend into the story. You need this to be a meaningful story element first of all. Themes shouldn’t just be talked about. You need moments that demonstrate the effect of these ideas. Only complete morons think philosophy is solely for discussions. We constantly act on our philosophies.

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This attitude towards philosophy is perhaps what fuels the anime, and what ruins it. It’s a shame because there’s more drive than pretense, more desire to explore than to look smart. Lain never feels like more than an armchair exercise, a ‘what if?’ thought experiment that has profound words but lacking conclusions.

Often, there are moments that point to a brilliant anime. The anime isn’t a monochrome grimdark piece of crap. Even if the mood is generally gloomy, it’s not afraid of showing the sun or the occasional smile. Its setting is believable enough psychologically. It also has a clear aesthetics and knows how to express it. Still shots of wires appear often, but ever enough to become distracting. They add some atmosphere and go away. Artificial light also gets a lot of focus, but never too much. Plenty of times, it’s just another element in the show. Unlike its little brother Texhnolyze, the anime’s scenes always have more than one purpose.

Its sense of style saves what could’ve been hilariously bad scenes. There are almost whole episodes dedicated to info dumps about certain topics. They’re entertaining though. The combination of imagery with the electronic soundtrack fits the mood. Since exchanging information is a big theme, this technique of info dumps actually fits themetically too.

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This sort of ‘experimental narrative’ isn’t too original if you watched a film like Pi or Eraserhead, but the creators know it’s not enough. You need to do more than just rip off the conventional story structure. So by replacing it with odd imagery that’s always loaded, the anime is amusing enough. It never just tells you how it intelligent it is. It tries to make you involved in the imagery, in its meaning and emotional implication.

All this effort is wasted, though. In the end, the story is too divorced from reality. It gets lost in its experimental narrative and weird imagery. It’s as if I was too busy figuring out what’s going on, what it expresses. It was too distant. It was too experimental, as if I’m busy figuring out the anime rather than thinking about the themes. I’m not interested in pounding my head to understand a cryptic philosophical quote. I want a statement so profound I could connect it logically to a hundred subjects. Crypticness isn’t profound. A wide-eyed approach is.

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I can imagine this story working if only the creators scaled back a bit. Have a little more dialogue. Have a little more exposition. Tone down the weird imagery a little. Focus on asking whether the ideas are clear, and less on weirding the audience out. Think, first of all, why theology and identity and communication matters. Only then set out to explore them. If you can’t convince me the theme is important in the first place, I’m not interested in thinking about it.

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Of course, I’m not writing it off as just a bunch of pretentious dudes patting themselves on the back. It’s a, well, failed experiment. It kept me curious enough that I enjoyed it even while being utterly confused. It does have a conclusion that ties it together. It has a purpose, but I wasn’t sure what it is. Hopefully someday I’ll know.

It’s better than Texhnolyze, at least.

Post-Script: This review has been written a long time ago and I’ve been wary of publishing it. The anime isn’t confusing in the traditional, ‘I don’t know what’s happening so it’s good!’ way. It’s too stylish for me to write it off as pretentious doodle, but it’s too abstract to explore its themes in a satisfying manner.

I’m reminded of abstract stories like Paranoia Agent and Pi. These stories relied more on meaningful scenes than coherent storytelling, but exploring their ideas was their primary focus. They never get unnecessarily weird. It’s easy to follow the abstract parts because the themes are established and followed. Lain dives headfirst into the surrealism with so much conviction, it’s as if the excitement over being experimental overtakes the desire to explore ideas.

I consider this my most inconclusive review so far. I’ll need to watch this again soon to determine whether it’s just pretentious doohicky or if it really went over my head.

3 boxes of cereal out of 5

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Texhnolyze

texhnolyze
To call Texhnolyze one of the most predictable stories is an understatement. The only expectation it defied was the exepctation to be worthwhile. Other than that, this is your typical artsy anime. It beats you over the head with how artsy it is, using techniques that distinguishes it from mainstream anime. None of these techniques distinguishes it from the many ‘artistic’ stories out there. It often looks like an immature, more angsty little brother of Blade Runner or Eraserhead.

Is there a more redundant way to inform your audience that your story is serious by having grey colours and serious characters? Nolan used the same technique in Inception and made a complete fool of himself. He was so focused on being serious that hsi dreams looked like Michael Bay directed them.

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The anime doesn’t follow an idea of its own. The directors behind it watched a bunch of art house films, noticed the lack of dialogue in Blade Runner and decided that this is the reason it got the acclaim.

Being serious isn’t going to make me take your story seriously. Halfway through the series and all the characters still act the same. They all present the same variation of the stoic, apathetic characters. Some are less stoic than others, but that’s like saying there’s a major difference between New York Hardcore and Beatdown Hardcore. They more similar than they are different.

After 20 episodes, the 100th shot of Ichise’s indifferent, emotionless face is hilarious. It reeks of trying too hard. Is the life of people in harsh environments like this? Did the Jews in the Holocaust or the fighters in Sudan had time to just stare off into the distant with a stoic face?

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Think of any photograph of a war-torned or poverty-stricked place. Do the people have the privilege of being stoic? No. These photographs are harrowing because they’re full of pain and suffering. These are people who want life and struggle to survive, to find some kind of joy in it. Stories from Holocaust survivors are full of these moments. They’re not stoic but swinging from one extreme painful moment to a small relief of happiness.

The only place that actually is monotonous is your office job and suburban job. Texhnolyze is full of angst, the kind your suburuban dad gets after 20 years in the same job. It’s your boring monotonous pessimism you hear from a teenager when every day is exactly the same.

Actually, comparing this to teen angst is a compliment. Teen angst is an existensial storm of ups and downs, like that Nine Inch Nails album. It can be silly but it’s exciting. Texhnolyze is macho angst. It’s the same thing that fuels Game of Thrones and Cormac McCarthy novels. The old macho fantasy of men in suits not expressing emotions is a big hit now and is often confused with depth. The only surprise is that Texhnolyze doesn’t have graphic sexual abuse (Although we do get a sexy doctor).

You cannot horrify the audience by constantly showing suffering. Humans adapt. When feel something too much we get used to it and our perspective changes. Texhnolyze has the same emotional tone throughout the series.

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Bleakness and grimdarkness cannot be leading tones. They’re too narrow. You can use them in certain scenes but unless you’re doing something especially unusual there’s nothing there. You need to contrast it with something. People don’t suffer because they don’t have something. People suffer because they don’t have something that they want.

There are plenty of tragic and dark works out there, but they’re effective because they’re aware suffering doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You don’t have to show a moment of joy. Just showing it can exist in your world is enough. I only have to skim over Serial Experiments Lain to find a shot of girls laughing in bright colors. This is enough to inform me that in the world of Lain, people can be happy.

Some moments have potential to offer contrast, but the mood suffocates it. A sex scene is in dark colors and full of dread. We see a party, but there breaks Hal’s heart. It is a flat line, which means it’s both shallow and dead.

If Texhnolyze found a unique way to express the grimdark cliche, I would have forgiven it. If it would have gone full retard in the Techno-Industrial depart it would be a little fun. While the soundtrack is nice, the scenery never reminded me of Front Line Assembly. The decay gets more focus than the mechanical nature. The focus is on the mood, rather on something that will create the mood. This is no City of Rapture.

The most radical switch from this mood is the action scenes. The anime joins BTOOOM! and Deadman Wonderland by bathing in blood and faces distorting in pain. The show already established a cold, stoic tone. When these scenes kick in, the violence isn’t harrowing. The scenes don’t reveal any pain because we were already beaten the head with pain before. So all they do is take the suffering one step further, showing it more explicitly. Someone should’ve told them that what makes pictures from the Holocaust or Unit 731 harrowing is because we know these are real people. The people in Texhnolyze aren’t real.

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There’s a revealing interview with the creators. They said these action scenes were a response to the Shounen Jump style violence, where characters walk away bleeding. The creators wanted to express ‘pain’. If they had any understanding of action films, they would have known they are not about pain. Action anime is about aestheticized violence, about making violence look really cool.

Asking what the creators wanted to communicate, they said they don’t have any idea. They admit things changed as they series went along and that’s it. He hoped that the viewer would feel some kind of empathy or that they will think ‘this might mean this’. Does that sound like a work which involved deep thought?

I did not want the creator to analyze his own work. Still, I expected them to have some kind of direction. Lynch saying he sees absurditiy and weirdness all around him is enough to give you some idea what his films try to express.

If Texhnolyze was a mess of ideas it would still be amusing. If it jumped off from one idea to the next it would at least be there. Not knowing what it’s about, instead, makes for an anime that never builds towards anything. The tone never changes, since they never know what it was about in the beginning so they had no foundation to build upon. It ends with a big battle and an antagonist who’s a rip-off on Fallout‘s The Master only without the charisma, humor and the depth.

I engaged in a long debate with hopes of finding value. While the person raised a lot of valid points and there is something here about the nature of existence and ‘being human’, it’s not conveyed. I engaged in that debate while watching the last episodes. They’re an improvement and the above-ground is a great idea, but the stoic mood and boring violence overpowered any depth there could have been. You don’t cover depth and ideas with a boring story. Your cover needs to serve the ideas, not obscure them.

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Some also told me the characters are not the point, but if this is about humanity they must be the point. You cannot have a story about human nature or existence without characters. Existence and stories don’t exist outside of characters. You can have a story without many things. You can have a story that’s just an inner monologue, but without characters the only thing you can write about is asteroids hitting planets and blowing shit up. That’s just a Michael Bay story without women.

Perhaps I’m an idiot. Perhaps there is something deeper beneath the 100 shots of apathetic and ultra macho faces. Perhaps everyone just jumps on the bandwagon of grimdark and think that if the anime has a serious tone, then we must take it seriously. I’ve experienced plenty of strange and ‘artistic’ stories. Most of them were weird enough to be interesting for a while even if they failed. Texhnolyze is a predictably artsy anime that can’t escape its trap. Even if it says something about existence or optimism, in the end it wants too much to be serious and everything is dead.

1.5 stoic faces out of 5

Psycho-Pass

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Criminals who babble philosophically will always be present in fiction. It’s an acknowledgement that mere sadism isn’t enough. Even if a person is a sadist, there is more going on than plain cruelty there. If we can answer what makes a man start fires, maybe we won’t need fire extinguishers. Too often these stories are too fascinated with the idea of the underdog taking revenge at society. He may lose, but awareness that he’s wrong doesn’t make it any less of an escapist fantasy.

The person’s actions should follow his worldview. If they contradict that, then this contradiction must be addressed. People are messy so of course they will contradict themselves. If they do so in the story, it’s because the author made it so. If he made it so, he needs to connect it. Don’t put contradictions where they don’t belong. People don’t always contradict themselves.

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There’s a scene where Makishima gets into a fight and we see he’s a professional. It’s like before he went to star in Psycho-Pass, he stopped at Naruto and learned the ways of the ninja. I was supposed to be impressed, though. Not only is Makishima pretty and can predict people’s actions, he’s a champion at MMA.

It’s hilarious. It reminded me how Lisbeth solve an equation in the middle of the climatic fight. It’s so easy to give your character skills. You just look up the cheat codes, write the lines that say “add 50 points to Melee Skill” and you’re done.

Just because your character is skilled at a lot of things doesn’t mean the author is skilled. Character skills are often substitutes for personality. Makishima is your stereotypical Pseudo-Philosophical Villain. Forget about how the series quotes a lot of books. None of Makishima’s speeches are related to his actions.

All of his actions involve death and destruction. He gives people who want to hurt others the means to do so. When Makishima does something of his own, it’s also to cause hurt. The dominating theme is hurting others. He gives them the freedom to hurt others, but that’s as far as it goes.

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For freedom to be a theme, it needs to be expressed in different ways. The only freedom people gain is to hurt others. The violence is more varied. The characters include a bullied man, a girl sucked in her art and a person who loves the thrill of the hunt.

Makishima is not very differernt from the Jigsaw Killer. Despite talking about appreciating life, his traps were so dangerous (some can’t be complete without somebody dying) that it’s obvious he doesn’t value these people’s lives. Makishima babbles about freedom and the prison of the Sybil System, but he’s fine with killing an innocent person. There’s no worse way of ripping freedom from someone than killing them.

It’s all shock value without substance. The result is entertaining at first, but goes downhill fast. The anime goes south when it expected me to stare at a helpless, half-naked woman begging for mercy and take the villain seriously. It’s not dark, because true darkness is understandable. A villain whose motives we can comprehand and find reasonable is scarier.

If Makishima tells people to live free or die, how much of a choice is it?

What a shame. The series never chose whether it was a thoughtful story or a wild, exciting one. Either of these would’ve been fine. Being pretentious is the valley between the two.

The other side of the horseshoe fares better. The Sybil System is questioned, but it never becomes a strawman. The System is totalitarian, but it’s not an evil regime bent on oppressing everyone so the protagonist will have something to fight. Every system of government comes to power because it benefits someone.

The System doesn’t just benefit the Rich & Powerful. It benefits the simple people. The society has order, but it’s good order that leaves a lot of room for joy and wonder. Creativity may be restricted, but creativity isn’t everything. The artist may want to draw violence and the rocker wants to tell everyone to fuck off. Some would prefer to have a steady job and enough money to go for drinks with their friends.

The System also presents an alternative moral system to current society. We live in a society that praises people for getting money, having a lot of sex and being physically fit. Somehow all these promises of sex and money don’t prevent the high rates of suicide. So Sybil is not very friendly towards outcasts and has less room for creativity, but what if it’s a price worth paying for mental health?

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It’s a society where you see advertisements for ways to improve your mental health. Everyone is talking about their Hue and Psycho-Pass. If you think this is going too far, then take a look at our own society. We do the same only for physical health. Physical health is a giant industry of protein shakes, gyms and promises of social status.

No system exists without its outcasts, and Sybil has its own. Only how it casts out people isn’t so different than ours. We rage against models who aren’t stick-thin, as if being fat is a moral offense. Later, we’ll hang out with sexual harassers just because they’re charismatic. Sybil is harsh to the mentally ill, but forgets about the actions.

For a    series where mental health is a big issue, it’s surprising how lacking it is in character development. A flashback tries to develop one character. All it tells us is that she used to play guitar. Why did she take a different road than her friend? Why are their worldviews so different?

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Akane gets some development, but she’s an archetype they play with rather than a psychological portrait. Ginoza is slightly better, but everyone else spits exposition without modifying it. There’s a wild card, a bisexual analyst, a cliched noir dude who remains tough and an old geezer. Their personalities clash more than your average detective story, but there aren’t even hints towards a psychology they didn’t have time to develop.

Psycho-Pass has interesting ideas and a pretty fun story, but it has Makishima. It’s a pin in the tire that let all the air out. The ideas are too undeveloped and there aren’t enough of them to make up for this. It’s not a case of a series that’s too short, but a series that focuses on the less interesting parts.

3 dominators out of 5